Tragedy in Cades Cove: The Dark History of the Smoky Mountains

Russell Gregory and Gregory's Cave

This undated photo is believed to be Russell Gregory, the namesake behind Gregory's Cave (also pictured). Gregory was believed to have perished at the hands of Rebels during the Civil War in Cades Cove (public domain)

The Civil War divided many residents of Cades Cove. It also cost the Gregory family their patriarch.

When you grow up around Cades Cove, you learn the names almost by accident. You hear about places like Gregory’s Bald and Gregory’s Cave before you learn the history of the people who lived there. But then as you visit the Cove and research the lives of those who lived there, they become more than landmarks. It’s a window into what life was like up in the mountains before the days of the National Park. 

Such is the case of Russell Gregory, the founding member of the Gregory family. He made such an impact on the Cove but then died tragically as a result of a larger political conflict that had torn the country in two. 

Though the Civil War is often portrayed as having pitted brother against brother, in the case of Russell Gregory, it may well have pitted father against son. Gregory was killed – murdered, according to a marker in the Primitive Baptist Church graveyard – by Rebels in 1864. And his son may well have played a key role. 

View from Cades Cove
Cades Cove has a tragic history, despite its beauty (photo by Morgan Overholt/

How It Started: A Family Divided Between the Union and the Confederacy

Russell Gregory was born in North Carolina in 1795. Therefore, he was already approaching 50 when he moved his family to the Cove sometime in the 1840s. Gregory’s Bald – up in the high mountains – is named in his honor. He used the mountain bald to graze cattle and farm, living on the mountain in a stone hut for part of the year. 

By the time the Civil War arrived, Gregory was in his ’60s and not much of a candidate for service. However, it appears four of his sons were Civil War soldiers. Walter – the youngest boy – joined the Union and died of measles in 1862. Charles and John A. served the Confederacy. The oldest son, Drewery, is listed as a Civil War soldier but I can’t find on which side he served. To further complicate things, at least one of his sons-in-law fought on the Union side as well. 

At the time, much of the Cove sided with the Union. The Primitive Baptist Church, for instance, stopped meeting for a time during the war. They cited the Rebel presence amongst a Union community as the reason. Gregory’s Cave may well have been a stop on the Underground Railroad

It should be noted that during the war, the mountains were a wild place. Men escaping conscription and deserters from both armies turned to life in the mountains. The Cades Cove community endured raids by “Rebel” parties that targeted anyone thought to be Union sympathizers, driving pro-Union leaders into hiding. But while some small skirmishes occurred in the region, no official battles occurred in the Cove. 

Gregory's Cave Short Distance View
Gregory’s Cave in Cades Cove is said to have been a possible stop along the Underground Railroad (photo by Bill Burris/

The Tragedy: What Happened to the Father?

The only fact that we can say for sure is that Russell Gregory was killed by “Rebel” forces. To deal with Rebel raiding parties, Union supporters around the Cove used children to set up as lookouts. The children would be stationed in vantage points where they could see Rebels entering the Cove. They’d used a series of signals to warn of impending raiders. 

One plausible version of the story suggests that Gregory organized a home guard. He and his guard intercepted a band of raiders. Gregory, using a muzzle-loader rifle known as “Old Long Tom” turned them back. The story indicates that Gregory’s Confederate son Charles recognized the distinct sound of “Old Long Tom” and told other members of the raiding party. The party returned, dragged Gregory from his home and killed him. 

Cemetery at Cades Cove Primitive Baptist
The Primitive Baptist Church stopped meeting for a while due to the divisions during the Civil War (photo by Alaina O’Neal/

The Family’s Version of Events

However, that version of events doesn’t seem to align with a lot of the oral history passed down by the family itself. Two other versions – which both end in Gregory being shot – have to do with the matter of Gregory’s stolen and slaughtered calf. It is said that Gregory confronted the Rebel raiding party. In both versions the Rebels killed him.  

There is also a version, like the first, that says Gregory was caught fleeing from Drewry’s home and was killed. Ultimately the tragedy is that Gregory, who’d lost one son in the war, was killed by men who sided with at least two of his other sons. Did Charles play a direct role? At this point, we can never know. 

henry whitehead place in cades cove
Henry Whitehead’s place is one of many cabins that can be viewed in the Cove today (photo by Morgan Overholt/

Cades Cove Today

Today Cades Cove is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Smokies and thus, the United States. In addition to the 11-mile loop road that offers scenic views and wildlife viewing, there are historic homesteads and churches, the old mill and access to several trailheads. Just outside the Cove are camping and picnicking areas. 

To find the Cove, use the Townsend entrance to the National Park and take a right at the Wye. You can also get to the Cove from Gatlinburg by taking Laurel Creek Road. At the Wye, continue straight. 

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